Do We Want Better Enforcement of Misguided Gun Restrictions?

"Universal background checks" could unjustly deny millions of people the right to armed self-defense.

"The single most important thing we can do to prevent gun violence and mass shootings," President Obama said last week, "is to make sure those who would commit acts of violence cannot get access to guns." Toward that end, he wants to require background checks not just for sales by federally licensed firearms dealers (as under current law) but for all gun transfers except those between relatives.

This idea seems to be the most popular of Obama's gun control proposals, supported by nine out of 10 respondents in a recent CBS News poll. Yet it is unlikely to stop mass shootings, and enforcing it would require the sort of surveillance that has long been anathema to defenders of the Second Amendment, exposing millions of peaceful people to the threat of gun confiscation and criminal prosecution.

Although an expanded background check requirement is ostensibly a response to last month's massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, it would not have stopped the gunman in that attack, who used firearms legally purchased by his mother. Even if he had tried to buy guns, it seems he would have passed a background check because he did not have a disqualifying criminal or psychiatric record.

That is typically the case in mass shootings, observes Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox. And if they could not pass a background check, Fox says, "mass killers could always find an alternative way of securing the needed weaponry, even if they had to steal from family members or friends."  

Meanwhile, to make sure that every gun buyer undergoes a background check, the government would need to know where all the guns are at any given time. Although Obama did not mention that little detail last week, The Washington Post reported earlier this month that the administration was "seriously considering" creating a system that would "track the movement and sale of weapons through a national database."  

Second Amendment supporters historically have opposed gun registration, fearing that it could ultimately lead to confiscation, something that has actually happened in places such as Canada, Great Britain, Australia, California, and New York City. While wholesale disarmament would be clearly unconstitutional in this country, confiscation of guns that legislators arbitrarily deem unnecessary or excessively dangerous is easier to imagine, especially given Obama's support for a new, stricter ban on "assault weapons."

Perhaps fear of confiscation seems paranoid to you. But consider what would happen if the federal government merely enforced existing law through expanded background checks and improved records—another step nearly everyone seems to think is self-evidently sensible. Such a crackdown would reveal the folly of current restrictions, which prohibit gun ownership by several absurdly broad categories of people under the threat of a five-year prison term.

One disqualifier is a felony record, whether or not the offense involved violence or even a victim. It is doubtful that check kiters, marijuana growers, or unauthorized farm workers (another banned category) are substantially more likely to go on a shooting rampage than the average person.

Federal law also bars "an unlawful user of...any controlled substance" from owning a gun. Think about that for a minute. If you smoke pot or use a relative's Vicodin or Xanax, you have no right to keep and bear arms. Survey data indicate that nearly 40 million Americans have used "illicit drugs" in the last year, and the true number is probably higher, since people may be reluctant to admit illegal behavior even when their answers are confidential.

One of Obama's "common-sense steps" to reduce gun violence is better sharing of data by federal agencies, including lists of employees or job applicants who have failed drug tests. Seeking such information from state agencies and private employers seems equally logical.

This is one of those situations where "better" could be worse. Although better enforcement of existing restrictions on gun ownership sounds unobjectionable, it would unjustly deny millions of people the right to armed self-defense.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • jester||

    The sky is falling. An ACORN fell. War on all reasonable calling of bullshit is the result. Good luck with applying reason but hey we've got nothing to lose.

  • Whiterun Guard||

    Except our guns, rights and liberty.

  • ||

    But...but..."Free" medical care!

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    "The single most important thing we can do to prevent gun violence and mass shootings," President Obama said last week, "is to make sure those who would commit acts of violence cannot get access to guns."

    Finally, someone is going to put those precogs to good use.

    While wholesale disarmament would be clearly unconstitutional in this country...

    Phew. Then we're safe.

  • Whiterun Guard||

    Finally, someone is going to put those precogs to good use.

    Hey as long as they jail them when they're wrong, a la l'Eyetalians, I'm fine with it.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Did you even see the movie? They're never wrong. The fact that the crimes they're predicting are thwarted proves it.

  • Whiterun Guard||

    Yeah, but that was with Tom Cruise and Max von Sydow in charge.

    Eric Holder couldn't make a Quaker work.

  • Bee Tagger||

    A better movie would have been if the pre-cogs predicted Colin Farrell would murder Tom Cruise by not catching that ball he rolled across the desk and inducing a broken heart in Tom Cruise.

  • RFID||

    Oddly enough the movie is much better than the short story on which it is based, where the hero of the story intentionally commits a crime he was framed for to save the government's spying toy.

  • Brutus||

    PK Dick stories always seem to need a little reining in to make them totally enjoyable, at least to me. He leaned a little too heavily on the reality-bending aspect of things, IMHO, to the point that it seemed he was dependent on the plot device to get the outcome he desired.

  • Walter Labat||

    my buddy's mother-in-law makes $84 hourly on the computer. She has been unemployed for 8 months but last month her pay check was $20467 just working on the computer for a few hours. Read more on this site... http://www.ace60.com

  • ||

    "...except those between relatives."

    I wonder how that will be defined in the statute....I mean executive order.

    Everyone is related. I remember seeing the math on that once.....even the yak herders in Tibet are my cousins 57 times removed.

  • ||

    how about you and the yaks?

  • Troglodyte Rex||

    58 times...there was this weird uncle.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    In the back of my mind, I seem to remember that U.S. law defines your relatives stopping at 3rd cousin. I could be wrong about that though.

  • EDG reppin' LBC||

    If half if you wasn't so lazy, you would have Googled it. ;-)

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    It's not Aethiopic hebetude as much as my Scottish, Jewish, and Indian blood is loathe to waste the bandwidth, because I'm just that thrifty.

  • ||

    Now, now, HM, there is nothing wrong with having the attitude of, "Waste not, want not."

    (The YooToob comments are gold.)

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    tmichael25 1 year ago
    Thank god I thought white trash

    Heh.

  • EDG reppin' LBC||

    The wife and I went to see Russell Peters last week at the Nokia Theater at LA Live. Fucking hilarious. Fun night.

  • ||

    ZING!

  • sarcasmic||

    Although better enforcement of existing restrictions on gun ownership sounds unobjectionable, it would unjustly deny millions of people the right to armed self-defense.

    In the mind of a liberal, armed self defense is vigilante justice. They see absolutely no difference between a woman shooting a man who is attempting to rape her, and her tracking him down a week after he raped her and shooting him in the back. In both cases she took the law into her own hands, and to a liberal that is wrong. She is supposed to enjoy the sex and call the cops when it's done.

  • ||

    You forgot "...and then have a right to an abortion..." Of course, there would be no need for an abortion is she could defend herself. Just a coffin would be needed for the rapist.

    Meh.

    It's funny, as I grow older my tolerance for liberals diminishes by the day.

  • ||

    This is proof to me that Pinkos Femmes and other Proggies hate women.

    I want women as armed to the teeth as possible to blow the weapon off of an attacker. What could be more empowering to women than being armed and exercising their right to bear arms and self-defence?

    I would love to see Piers Morgan's face when confronted with, "Why do you want women raped, Piers? Why do you hate them so?"

  • Brutus||

    The problem is that women so armed aren't as likely to be clamoring for protecting from Daddy the State.

  • Rich||

    to make sure that every gun buyer undergoes a background check, the government would need to know where all the guns are at any given time

    Would someone *kindly* explain this to me?

    It seems analogous to "to make sure that every beer buyer undergoes a age check, the government would need to know where all the beer is at any given time".

  • ||

    I think, "Fuck you, that's why," covers it.-)

  • Rich||

    Whew! I thought maybe it was a typo -- "the government would need to know where all the gun *buyers* are at any given time". ;-(

  • EDG reppin' LBC||

    If you buy a 6 pack on the way over to your pal's house, and collect some money from him upon arrival-- no problem.
    If you buy a gun on the way to your pal's house, and collect some money for the gun upon arrival-- federal prison.

  • IamNotEvil||

    "I sold/bought it before the law was passed."

    Prove it didn't happen.

  • Rich||

    How's that work out when dealing with the IRS?

  • IamNotEvil||

    Cash or barter, no records no receipts (yet).

    Honestly, how many people report the income from a private used car sale?

  • R C Dean||

    Yeah, like the burden of proof will be on the government.

  • Juice||

    Check kiting is a crime with a victim. Ok, so the victim is a bank, but sometimes it's a small bank or credit union that can't take a huge hit. Some check kiting schemes rack up millions.

  • Zair||

    I think that one was just supposed to be non-violent, the next two lacking a victim.

  • SDN||

    "If you smoke pot or use a relative's Vicodin or Xanax, you have no right to keep and bear arms."

    Oh, you wish it was that limited. Ever been prescribed Chantix to help quit smoking? or Xanax to help lose weight? Congratulations, you've been prescribed an anti-depressant, and the Obamacare database will show it. That's all the "mental health issue" the gun-banners need.

  • DaveSs||

    I'd really like to know how they arrive at the supposed statistic '40% of gun transfers don't include a background check'

    Assuming for the moment that the stat is true, what does it include?

    1 Transfers between immediate family (parents, grandparents, siblings, children), either by inheritance, or by sale/gifting.
    2 Transfers between extended family (aunts, uncles, cousins)
    3 Transfers between acquaintances (friends, colleagues, members of your gun club)
    4 Transfers between presumed felons (gang banger to gang banger for example)
    5 Transfers between total strangers

    My guess is that all five of these situations are included in the 40% stat. The question then is how much of that 40% is made up of each category?

    If items 1-3 account for most of the transfers without a background check then requiring the background check is really going to have no measurable effect.

    If item $4 is included in the 40% number it would only serve to pad the number of transfers without a background check. Requiring the background check wouldn't do anything here. Presumably this (or theft) is how most prohibited persons acquire a firearm.

    The last one, transfers between total strangers is the only time you can possibly think that requiring background checks might actually stop a sale to a prohibited person. How much of the 40% stat does this make up? Even if you require the background check, stats on NICS denial suggest that over 99% of the sales would be to law abiding folks.

  • SIV||

    Most secondary market transfers are "private party".I would assume this includes inheritance, gifts, trades, and private sales. Any tading/sales between collectors using a C&R license are not subject to background check either.Sales from a dealer to a holder of some state "carry" licenses are not required to go through NICS. I wonder if those are counted as part of the 40%?

  • DaveSs||

    I forgot about C&R licenses, and dealer sales to CHL permit holders in some states.

    Sales to CHL permit holders in particular seems like it could inflate that 40% number quite a bit given that the people who get CHLs tend to purchase more guns than the average person.

    I guess my point is, how much of that 40% is padding just to make it seem like the supposed 'problem' is larger than it really is.

  • AZ||

    A C&R is an FFL, including consenting to the ATF coming by to have a look at your books and collection, and requiring a check up front. It may not require a NICS call, but it's pretty dishonest to complain about that not requiring a background check.

  • R C Dean||

    I'd really like to know how they arrive at the supposed statistic '40% of gun transfers don't include a background check'

    Its based on a study done in the '90s with a small sample size.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/....._blog.html

    The banners, of course, complain that the evil right wing rethuglitards have blocked further studies, because you can't do a study without government funding.

  • KPres||

    The vast majority they're counting are gifts, ie, father gives son his gun when he dies...that's a transfer with no background check.

  • My Dog Bites Better Than Yours||

    C'mon DaveSs, you know as well as I do that 86% of all statistics are made up on the spot, but 90% percent of the people don't care.

    The numbers don't matter, the sentiment does. It's about "common sense", after all.

  • John C. Randolph||

    . If you smoke pot or use a relative's Vicodin or Xanax, you have no right to keep and bear arms.

    No, you still have the right. The government will VIOLATE that right, which isn't the same as saying it doesn't exist.

    -jcr

  • waaminn||

    Sounds like a very good plan to me dude. Wow.

    www.Anon-123.tk

  • John||

    Like everything else proposed by the gun controllers, background checks are a completely useless and disingenuous proposal. We essentially have "background" checks for the use of proscription pain killers. They are called a doctor's proscription. Yet, plenty of people who just want to abuse them get them. That is because any government control of items that people want will just lead to the rise of a black market. Background checks will not prevent any dangerous person from buying a gun. But what they will do is allow the gun grabbers to make criminals out of anyone who owns a gun and gets into a fight with their spouse or gets a DUI or commits any number of other crimes that have nothing to do with guns. It is all part of a long term strategy of making gun owners criminals and slowly moving towards confiscation. Everything they do is about achieving that end.

  • sarcasmic||

    It is all part of a long term strategy of making gun owners criminals and slowly moving towards confiscation. Everything they do is about achieving that end.

    Yup. But they can't be honest about it because, well, because liberals are not honest.

  • R C Dean||

    They have finally come out of the closet on background checks as the incremental step to registration.

    Registration, of course, is an incremental step to confiscation.

  • Slammer||

    "The single most important thing we can do to prevent gun violence and mass shootings"

    There's not even the pretense anymore of "TRY or ATTEMPT to prevent gun violence..."

    YES!YES WE CAN!

  • submandave||

    "an unlawful user of...any controlled substance"

    I guess that means our Choomer-in-Chief is banned.

  • R C Dean||

    Not to worry. He's got people for that. For life, now, per his own executive order.

  • Cloudbuster||

    But ... but we have a picture of him holding a shotgun in his hand! He's an admitted user of pot and cocaine! He's legally barred from owning a gun, and in Reid's bill, handing it to him to use at Camp David would count as a transfer! Throw him in jail!!

    Oh, wait, forgot that the laws are only for the little people. Nevermind.

  • juris imprudent||

    I can't believe the simplest reason for not having universal background checks was overlooked. It would be an extension of the GCA of '68, which is based on Commerce Clause regulation of federally licensed dealers.

    So, is everyone who ever sells/transfers one of their guns going be required to be an FFL? If not, the law cannot reach them (without another hideous PPACA-like contortion). California does require all transactions to clear through a state-licensed dealer, as it can under the general police power.

  • AZ||

    Yeah, I'm disappointed by the lack of questioning how the Gov't could regulate private transfers of property within state lines, or where they would derive this authority.

    Yeah, Wickard and its bastard spawn, or penaltaxes, but we should always start the Constitutional analysis with "how can the Gov't do this" before we get on to looking at the Bill of Rights.

  • Loki||

    it would unjustly deny millions of people the right to armed self-defense.

    And to many progressives facists this is a feature, not a bug. The proper self defense protocol to these assholes is to cower in a closet and call the police, then hope they get there in time to save your worthless life. It's better to die with a phone in your hand than to defend yourself.

  • FucktheNannyState||

  • 16th amendment||

    Any proposals to track guns should come with a stipulation that Obama comes clean on Fast and Furious.

  • Tom RKBA||

    No, we don't want anything.

    Firearms are merely property.

    They do not have the *power* to make me through a background to acquire, use, or sell my property. The Virginia constitution guarantees my right to keep and bear arms and this is part of it.

  • ||

    Didn't Obama admit he once used marijuana? That's an unlawful use of a controlled substance. Would that make him a felon for possessing that shotgun he claims to shoot skeet with?

  • Cloudbuster||

    Yup. Laws are only for the little people.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement